Eagles First Quarter Grades

Well, we are ¼ of the way through the Eagles season with the Birds sitting at 3-1.  Honestly, if you offered me 3-1 through these 4 games, I would have signed for it rather readily.  But, I certainly would not have anticipated the route they have traveled to arrive there.  And, there has to be a part of every Eagles fan that knows that 4-0 was 54 inches away.  All that said, there have been some very good performances so far (and some not so good ones).  So, at the quarterpole, it’s time to give out the First Quarter Grades for each of our guys in green.

Most of the grade is based strictly on my opinion of each player’s performance to date, but there is probably a subconscious “curve” going on here, as I am sure my opinion is at least partially affected by my expectations and what is asked of each player.  For instance, Brad Smith is going to get a higher grade than Riley Cooper, but that does not at all mean that I think Smith should be ahead of Cooper on the depth chart.  I just believe that based on what was expected and what is asked of each player, Smith has delivered more than Cooper.  If their expectations and roles were switched, the grades would be very different.

Anyway, on to the grades…

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Nick Foles – C+
The first grade handed out was one of the hardest to give.  What can you say about a guy that has thrown for a ton of yards and leads an offense that has scored the 3rd most points in the league through 4 weeks.  However, he has looked shaky – including a clunker in San Fran.  Now, some of that has to do with the makeshift O-line, so I gave him a bit of a break there, but a completion percentage below 60% is not good and some of the misses have been big misses.  In the end, the guy has still led 3 late comeback wins and was 54 inches from 4-for-4 on Sunday.  We are going to need much better QB play, for sure, but Foles hasn’t been as terrible as our favorite Chicken Littles may want you to believe.

Running Backs

LeSean McCoy – D
The O-line can only go so far as an excuse for flat-out POOR play from the “best RB on the planet.”  To me, he looks hurt.  He was always so good at making the first guy miss, so the bad offensive line shouldn’t be hurting him as much as it would some other backs.  Also, he has really struggled in pass protection, which has always been a real strength of his game.  My big fear:  Shady has always been great about understanding when to get out of bounds and not chance another hit.  But, with his immense frustration right now could cause him to take push for extra yardage and get himself hurt.  For better or worse, the Birds will be riding Shady as far as he can take them, and he must be healthy for any of these high aspirations to see the light of day.

Darren Sproles – A+
For the past 5-6 years, my favorite non-Eagle has been Darren Sproles.  Now, he’s an Eagle, and he has been everything I dreamed he could be.  The only knock against him is that he has disappeared a bit on offense the past two weeks, but I blame the o-line and gameplan for that more than Sproles himself.  And, in San Fran, he showed that you don’t have gameplan him in to get impact, as he took a punt return to the house.  This guy is amazing.

Chris Polk – C-
“The most important ability is availability.”  Or, as Doogan always says, “health is a skill.”  Polk needs to be healthy.  We could use his change of pace going forward.  But, he has been banged up and unready to play.  His grade is only saved by that huge kick return against Washington.  Other than that, I have been very disappointed that he has not put himself in position to contribute more.

Wide Receivers

Jeremy Maclin – A-
After two games, I was very concerned about the wideouts in general.  But, the past two weeks completely eliminated my concern about our #1.  Maclin seems to be getting comfortable on his knee and is poised to potentially become an elite receiver in this league.  He has been making tough catches and shown that he can take the top off of the defense the way DeSean used to do.  He’s currently 5th in the NFL in receiving yards and poor deep throws by his QB has cost him at least 2 or 3 more big plays or he might be #1.

Riley Cooper – F
As good as Maclin has been, Cooper has been worse.  Honestly, there is no one on this roster in whom I have been more disappointed than Mr. Cooper.  And, I am not trying to pile on here or play hyperbole.  He has been dreadful.  There have been two touchdowns – including on in the Niners game that could have completely changed that game – that were flat-out dropped.  He is not getting open, and he is not making plays.  Remind me again why we think he’s good?  He has been a borderline #4 wideout for all but 10 game s in his career – those 10 games just happened to be the last 10 of 2013.  But, shouldn’t we think that that was the fluke and not the entire rest of his career?  I am very concerned about the #2 wideout position right now.

Jordan Matthews – B+
Matthews has been very good in the slot.  He is still making his way as a rookie WR.  This grade is definitely on a curve because I do not think he has made all that much of an impact, but that is more because (a) he hasn’t gotten the chances (I am hoping that will change going forward) and (b) he is a rookie WR.  Rookie WRs rarely produce right away, but Matthews looks like the exception so far.  I am not ready to say he can be a productive outside receiver yet, but with the struggles of Cooper, we may find out sooner than we otherwise should.

Brad Smith – C+
He hasn’t been asked to do much, but he has been okay when in there.  I still like his versatility and think he is a lot more valuable to this team than he may appear on the surface (not to mention his special teams contributions).

Jeff Maehl – D-
I have no idea why he continues to make this roster.  Is there no one out there that would be an upgrade here?  Honestly…

Tight Ends

Zach Ertz – A-
I know he had a rough homecoming in San Fran, but I am not letting that overshadow what he has meant to this offense in their 3 wins.  There is a real chance that Ertz becomes the backbone of the passing attack for years to come.  He is a special player, who is just about to break out.  His pass-catching ability and perfect fit for this offense even allows me to overlook the fact that he is not a very good blocker at this point in his career.  He is improving in that area, though, and is good enough to keep the defense honest.  This guy is a budding superstar.

Brent Celek – B+
A B+ for a guy with 3 catches in 4 games?  Yes.  First of all, Celek has turned himself into an outstanding blocking tight end.  And, regardless of the numbers, he still has to be respected as a pass-catcher by the defense, which makes him invaluable.  He is not just a blocker when in the game – and, like Maclin, his numbers could look a lot better if the QB had connected on a couple of deep balls.  Celek is still an important piece to this offense and, given the o-line struggles, has done all he can this year to lend a hand.

James Casey – D+
The first Chip Kelly free agent signing has been really disappointing for a year and a half now.  I know he made a huge catch to seal the game against Washington, but that is his only catch this year, and he has shown to not be the blocker we thought he was.  The guy we thought we were getting would fit rather nicely in this offense.  Unfortunately, we never got that guy.  I hope you all enjoyed the James Casey Era because it’s just about over in Philly.

Offensive Line

Jason Peters – A-
There are some “experts” who believe that Peters looks like he has taken a step backwards this year.  I am not sure I agree.  Yes, there haven’t been a ton of those plays where you watch and say “how does a guy that big do THAT?!?”  But, I think that is more because end-runs by McCoy and the bubble screens by the WRs haven’t been as prevalent this year.  To be honest, for a guy like Peters, who has always jumped off the screen because of his incredible plays, to be the steady, consistent guiding force of a beat-up, inexperienced offensive line shows a real maturity and progression to his game.  It is hard to fault the one guy in his rightful position that is seemingly holding this o-line together.

Todd Herremans – B
The point about Peters being the steady force guiding this makeshift line is the reason I gave Herremans such a high grade.  He has not exactly been that great this year, but he has been at least adequate at multiple positions with changing guys all around him.  O-lines crave consistency and familiarity, so for Herremans to play different positions with different guys just about every week and still be rather effective is an indication of how much of a pro he is.

Jason Kelce – B
Before he got hurt, Kelce had an A+. I think he had become the best center in the NFL – and BY FAR the best center for this offense.  Unfortunately, he’s on the shelf.  This offense NEEDS its center.

All Other O-Linemen – C-
I was going to go through them individually, but it is just not worth it because of the lack of time and such.  Andrew Gardner has seen the most action of the “second stringers” and has not been terrible.  David Molk was barely serviceable (and that’s actually generous) as Kelce’s replacement in San Fran.  Dennis Kelly has been okay, but has clearly shown why he is a 6th lineman in this league.  Allen Barbre barely saw the field before being placed on IR.  Same for Evan Mathis, though he’s due back (thank god – because he’s irreplaceable).  And, then there’s Matt Tobin.  The coaching staff loves this guy, and he has all the tools to really make an impact in this offense.  But, he was absolutely DREADFUL in San Fran on Sunday.  Just awful.  It looks like he is going to get another chance even with Lane Johnson coming back, but he can’t give the same performance this week or he might not ever get a third chance.

DEFENSE

D-Linemen

Fletcher Cox – A-
I have been driving the Fletcher Cox bandwagon since he was drafted and have finally been vindicated this year.  Cox has been sensational.  The only reason the grade isn’t higher is because I want to see more sacks on the stat sheet.  But, he has brought some pressure and, more importantly, has been incredible against the run.  He is playing at a borderline All-Pro level and is going to be a stalwart on this defense for years to come.

Cedric Thornton – A
The higher grade does not mean he has outplayed Cox – it’s just been that, compared to expectations, the undrafted free agent, Thornton, may be the most underrated player on this Eagles roster.  Week in and week out, he just puts out stellar performances – taking on blockers, setting an edge, and creating havoc in the middle of the o-lines.  This defense is still built around strength up front, which makes Thornton one of the most important players in green every single week.

Bennie Logan – B
I am going more with what I read and hear than what I see on Logan.  People that know more than me seem to think he has been playing outstanding football in the middle.  Personally, I haven’t seen a lot that has jumped out at me.  But, having only closely watched a 3-4 defense for 21 games now, I fully admit that I might not fully understand the nuances of nose tackle.  Either way, there is no doubt that Logan has filled a very important need in this defense, as he appears to be a certifiable NFL nose – and those are hard to come by.

Vinny Curry – D+
This might be unfair because I am tired of the hype around a guy that is clearly lost against the run.  I was always able to put up with the lack of run stopping ability when he was getting to the QB, but he hasn’t really been doing that either this year.  I love the hometown kid, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Eagles, but I won’t be heartbroken when he’s let go this offseason.  (That said, it wouldn’t shock me in the least if he is the next Derek Burgess and has 17 sacks in Oakland next year or something like that).

Beau Allen – C-
He doesn’t seem to cause much havoc when he’s in there – and it’s hard to miss him with that ridiculous hair.

Brandon Bair – C+
I would be lying if I said that I have noticed all that much of Bair either way.  He seems to be decent on special teams, despite not being the type of guy who plays much “teams.”

Linebackers

DeMeco Ryans – A
It is not necessarily the overall playmaking of Ryans that got him an A in the first quarter.  It is the fact that he is the undisputed leader of this defense and, at 30 years old, has played every single snap (at a grueling position) for a team that leads the league in defensive snaps.  And, this will be the second straight year that he leads the league in snaps played on defense.  If you value “steady’ (which I value VERY HIGHLY), then you love DeMeco Ryans.

Connor Barwin – A-
Am I too high on a defense that has stuggled at times this year?  Just wait…  Anyway, Connor Barwin has been outstanding all year.  I wish he would start putting sacks up on the board, but he is so good at deflecting passes and sniffing out play calls, that it is hard to hold that against him right now.  This has been a very underrated signing for this team, as Barwin comes to play every week – no bells, no whistles – just hard-nosed linebacking.  I love that.

Trent Cole – C-
I hate to pour dirt on one of the best Eagles in a generation, but we need to be honest here.  If Cole isn’t putting up monster sack numbers at OLB, then he is probably really hurting your defense.  He will always be a liability in coverage (through no real fault of his own, considering he lived on this Earth for 30 years without EVER being asked to cover anyone), but so are Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware.  Well, Trent Cole is not causing nearly enough pressure to make up for his lack of coverage skills.  They are stuck with him now because Marcus Smith clearly isn’t ready and Brandon Graham is just a younger, not as good version of Cole (more on these two in a minute), but one of my favorite all-time Eagles is a real liability for the 2014 team.  Shh – let’s keep that rather quiet, though, out of respect for an all-time great.

Brandon Graham – B-
I don’t think Graham will ever be an upgrade to Cole, but at least, when given the chance, he is getting to the QB.  There is no doubt the guy is a bust for where they took him, but at this point in his career, I think he is valuable, and I am glad that no one panicked and cut him loose this offseason.  We will see if he earned himself another contract (probably not), but for now, I am glad to have him.

Mychal Kendricks – A-
This would have been an A+ if he were healthy.  But, he is not.  That said, if Kendricks can at all replicate the first 2.5 games he was out there in the final 12, this defense might actually be one day considered rather good.  It is nice to see a young LB turning in to a star right before our eyes, though.  Get back on the field, Mychal.

Emmanuel Acho – C
I wish he didn’t have to play at all…ever.  But, he hasn’t been terrible.  The Najeh Goode injury looks really big now, as Goode would have been a nice fill-in for Kendricks.  Acho has shown something on special teams, as well, so he has been okay.  It is just a shame that it is such a huge step down from Kendricks to the Acho/Matthews combination.

Casey Matthews – D-
He stinks.  I just hope that this Casey Matthews Experiment ends this year.  Please…

Marcus Smith – D+
He hasn’t gotten a chance to play, but that doesn’t mean that that isn’t his fault.  And, just because the team reached for him as a first-round pick doesn’t excuse the fact that he can’t get on the field.  Someone else would have taken him in the 1st or early 2nd.  I know that he is a bit of a project, and we should wait to fully evaluate the Smith selection, but it is really tough to swallow when your 1st-round pick can’t get on the field (I can’t tell you my reaction every time I see Darqueze Denard make another play for Cincinnati).  All in all, though, I like the fact that he was able to move to ILB in one week and not look totally lost – a little anxious, maybe, but not lost.  Oh well, I guess we should just look at Jordan Matthews as the #1 and Smith as a work-in-process #2.

Cornerbacks

Cary Williams – C-
I have always been a Williams defender.  I actually like his attitude.  I think the “F you” attitude is needed in today’s NFL – particularly at CB.  However, when the “F you” is turned inside (more specifically, at the coach) then you’ve lost me.  But, beside the stupid comment about practice tiring him out (even though he missed that whole week of practice), Williams has not been very good on the field.  In his defense, he is not really a #1 corner.  In NOT his defense, he is paid like one.  I may have actually been kind with this grade.

Bradley Fletcher – D
This season has been a nightmare for Fletcher in coverage.  I considered a flat-out F, but I do like his tackling ability.  And, after years of Asante Samuel and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, I do have a soft spot for corners that are willing to tackle.  Unfortunately, he is paid to cover receivers, and he just can’t do that right now.

Brandon Boykin – B+
I am not jumping on this “Boykin needs to play outside right now” bandwagon.  BUT…I am DEFINITELY on the “Boykin needs to play more snaps” bandwagon.  I don’t care how you get him in the game, but this guy needs to be on the field.  I am not sure he’s a superstar in the making, but I am sure that he has done just about everything he can in his limited action.

Nolan Carroll III – C+
Carroll hasn’t seen much of the field, either, but I kind of put some of that blame on him.  The coaching staff has never said that Carroll isn’t an outside CB, so if they saw anything in practice, they might replace Fletcher on the outside.  So, while the limited action I have seen has been positive with Carroll, I have to believe that he has been less than impressive in practice or he would be on the outside.  Or…maybe that change is coming.

Safeties

Malcolm Jenkins – A
Hard to say anything negative about Malcolm Jenkins.  He has been everything we could have hoped for.  He has come up with timely interceptions (including that return TD for an offense that probably wouldn’t have scored there based on how they were moving the ball).  He has done exactly what they said he would do when they signed him – bring versatility.  He can cover man-to-man, play the single high, or come into the box in run defense.  In fact, that last point is the one that has been most impressive to me.  I didn’t realize he was such a sound tackler.  Jenkins has been terrific.

Nate Allen – D+
I have held out on saying this because I still thought there was hope for Nate Allen.  But, you know what?  I am officially DONE with Allen.  He blows coverages (and not just the obvious one against D-Jax) and gets manhandled at the line of scrimmage.  And, for a free safety, he takes the worst angles I have ever seen.  It is like he thinks he like 10% faster than he actually is…and, bad angles is not exactly a good trait for the last line of defense.  I’m ready to move on.

Earl Wolff – C
I like Wolff.  I know that he is a bit undisciplined, but he hits people, and he is really aggressive going for the ball in the air.  I don’t think he’s ready to replace Allen midseason, but if I were planning the personnel, I would be looking for Wolff to be the starting FS in 2015.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Bryan Braman/Chris Maragos – A+
The biggest improvement for the Eagles from Chip Kelly, Year 1 to Chip Kelly, Year 2 has been – without a doubt – the kick coverage teams.  A lot has to do with the kicker and punter (more on that below), but I think the complete overhaul, which was led by the free agent signings of Braman and Maragos – among others.

Cody Parkey – A
I could have knocked him for the short miss in the Indy game, but he came back and made the game-winner.  And, while the two 51-yarders are nice, the reason I gave Parkey an A is because the Eagles touchback percentage has gone from 40% in 2013 to 60% in 2014.  That 60% is 15th in the league, but doesn’t take into account the fact that 3 of the 4 games were at the Linc or San Fran – two difficult places to kick for distance.  Parkey is booming the ball – and that is a welcome change.

Donnie Jones – B+
This might be a little unfair because he has been really good again this year (particularly in hangtime and placement).  I guess I just downgraded him a bit because he hasn’t been quite as incredible as he was last year (when he was sensational).  Still it is such a luxury to have such a steady, solid, smart punter.

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8 Biggest Takeaways of the Birds 2-0 Start

So, here we are through two rather interesting games of the Eagles season, and the Birds sit at 2-0, including a shaky home win against a really bad team and an impressive road win over a pretty good team.  It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there, but let’s take a look at what we have seen so far in these 120 minutes of game action.  Here are my biggest takeaways through the first two games:

1). Nick Foles looks shaky
I know, it is strange for the #1 takeaway for a 2-0 team to be a negative one.  It is even stranger for that negative to be about the QB who is 2nd in the league in passing yards and is in charge of the league’s highest scoring offense.  I have come around and am officially a “Foles guy” now, but we have to be honest – he looks a bit shaky.  The first half against Jacksonville was abysmal, and the first half against Indy wasn’t all that much better.  He has missed open receivers and has misthrown several short passes and bubble screens.  While he did rally both times and showed some real resiliency, he does not seem to have the same poise and accuracy that he had last year.  But, let’s remember, it’s early.  They’re 2-0.  And, they lead the league in points scored, so we will take 19 of those “shaky” games if they turn out the same result.  I am actually encouraged by the fact that both Foles and McCoy have been relatively quiet and they have 64 points and 2 wins in two games.

2). The two guys picked ahead of Foles look FANTASTIC
Foles – the 3rd-round pick – may be the most nationally well-known Eagle drafted in the 2012 draft, but the two guys the Eagles drafted before their franchise QB have are on the brink of legit stardom – and they are both on the other side of the ball.  Mychal Kendricks has shown flashes of brilliance in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, but he was annoyingly (at least to me) inconsistent.  This year, he looks like a total stud across the board.  Now, we don’t really know the extent of the calf injury he suffered Monday night, but before he left, he had put in 7 incredible quarters of football in 2014 – making plays all over the field.  He can cover tight ends and even some slot receivers when needed, but he can also get to the QB and is a killer against the run.  Now, I haven’t been as high on him as most in his first 2 years, but right now, he looks like the centerpiece of a potentially outstanding defense for the next decade.

The other budding superstar is a guy that I have actually been higher on than most since being drafted #11 overall in 2012 – Fletcher Cox.  I know that he didn’t exactly “pop” in either of his first two years, but it is happening now right before our eyes.  He still leaves a little to be desired in his ability to get to the QB (which is always going to make the casual observer mark him down a peg), but his ability to set the edge in the run game and pursue ballcarries (or scrambling QBs) is incredible.  And, I think that his lack of consistent QB pressure has more to do with the fact that he is still learning the ins and outs of the 3-4 (he is much more natural in the 4-3).  This year, however, he is starting to eat up multiple blockers in the pass game, which will, hopefully, lead to more QB pressure across the defense.  Either way, Fletcher Cox is becoming a real star in this league and, along with Kendricks, the ridiculously underrated Connor Barwin and the ever-steady Demeco Ryans, could be the centerpiece of a defense that has actually looked very, very good through two games.

3).They do miss D-Jax…schematically…but are a significantly better football team without him
This is no real surprise, as he is a dynamic playmaker who makes a lot of things happen even when he doesn’t get the ball.   All his big plays aside, maybe the true value of DeSean Jackson on the field was the impact he had on everyone else in the passing game.  Countless D-coordinators have said, flat-out, that they used to completely tailor their defensive gameplans around containing DeSean.  Safeties would always have to cheat his way, and the #1 corners that “travelled” would always find their way to his side.  Without him out there, the safeties are more free to roam in pass coverage and help in the run game.

HOWEVER…while Chip & Co. are too classy to come out and say it, I think that the team is much better because he is gone.  If you ever get a chance to hear guys like Adam Caplan talk about it (and, very few know more about the inner workings of the Eagles than Caplan), the real problem with Jackson came down to attitude.  Now, that seems like an obvious comment, but Caplan puts a different spin on it and provides stark examples.  Caplan talks about how Chip Kelly had decided midway through last season that they were going to move on without Jackson because he was holding back a lot of what they wanted to do around there.  It wasn’t the gang ties; it wasn’t the cursing out of the coaching staff; it wasn’t even his stark refusal to buy-in to the smoothies and sleep monitors.  It was simple – the thing that Kelly’s offense gets the most press for is its tempo.  And, Jackson was slowing them down.  That tempo doesn’t just come from “hurrying up” on Sunday afternoon when you have the ball.  That tempo comes from intricate practice schemes, where the players practice over and over getting tackled, jumping up, throwing the ball to the ref, and running back to the line.  Jackson never wanted to do that – particularly in practice.  Kelly believes (according to Caplan) that Jackson’s refusal to take this uptempo style at practices (and oftentimes games) seriously enough slowed the whole team down.  So, he cut him.  And, the tempo is soaring through two games and is possibly the reason that this team is the only team in NFL history to be 2-0 after trailing both games by 14+ points in the second half.

4). Practice matters
With today’s CBA, practice times have been slashed.  Coaches have less ability to mold their players the way they want.  But, the Eagles and Genius Kelly have found a way to combat this.  While practice “time” is regulated, there is no restriction, obviously, on practice “reps.”  And, by all accounts, Chip Kelly’s practices are the most efficient practices this sport has ever seen.  Dick Vermeil estimated that Kelly gets 3x as many reps in any given 2-hour practice than Vermeil’s teams ever did.  And, what does this do?  Well, for one, it allows Chip’s teams to get more work on their gameplans than anyone else in the league, but, secondly – and maybe more telling so far – is that it makes the Eagles the most well-conditioned team in the league.  You look around the league in these two weeks, and you will see an avalanche of games that turned drastically in the second halves.  Both Eagles wins, the Bears on Sunday night, the Patriots loss in Week One, the Browns nearly winning two games after bad first halves, etc., etc., etc.  Early in the season, conditioning matters at the end of games, particularly in the heat.  Late in the season, it matters in keeping guys healthy (the Eagles were the healthiest team in the league in Chip’s first year).  This stuff matters – and that is why this coach makes more of a difference on his team than any coach I have ever followed closely.

5). These WRs are not very good
I know we are only two games into his shiny new contract, but Riley Cooper looks like he is straight stealing $25 million out there.  He is not getting open and not making plays.  He looks like the lost, mediocre receiver that he was his entire career other than the second half of 2013.  Why do we think that he “figured something out” again?

Jeremy Maclin looks a little better, but he does not look anything close to a #1 receiver right now – nor does it look like he ever will be, to be honest.  He has good speed, but nothing game-changing, and he has a willingness to go get the tough catch, but I am not sure he has the ability.  I said it all offseason, they should have given Houston a 2nd-rounder for Andre Johnson – and, I really value high draft picks and do not value WRs on the wrong side of 30 – I just think that was the last piece of this offensive puzzle.  But, again, this is the top-scoring team in the NFL, so who’s complaining.

6). That “silent killer” is gone this year
People talk about return and coverage production as “hidden yardage.”  Well, does anyone notice how much better the special teams’ coverage is this year than last?  The front office made significant free agent investments in Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos as well as personnel decisions seemingly driven completely by coverage ability.  And, through two games, it seems to have paid off.  And, by “paid off” I mean that I have not noticed the coverage teams…at all.  Coverage teams are like referees or offensive linemen – typically, the more you notice them, the worse they are.  Just think back to last year and just how hair-pullingly frustrating the coverage teams (and lack of touchbacks, by the way) were.  You don’t have that same feeling this year, do you?  Ya, me neither…and, I like it.

7). How can we go this far without mentioning…?
Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz!  No, seriously, how amazingly do these two fit into this offense?  The personnel matchups are so hard to defend.  Such versatility combined with brilliant play design means that, short of playing nickel or dime packages, it is almost impossible to avoid having LBs covering either Ertz or Sproles or both – and that is the perfect recipe for big play after big play.  And, the more that Ertz and Sproles dominate games this way, the more teams will have to go into sub-packages meaning LeSean McCoy may be running into nickel and dime packages…yes, please.  This offesnse is just going to get harder and harder to defend as it goes.

8). And, the heartbeat of this offense continues
All of these great matchups and brilliant play design is great and all, but this offense (and most offenses) begins and ends up front.  Jason Peters continues to be one of the best tackles of this generation, and certainly the best left tackle in football right now.  Now, I am no expert on O-line play, but I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a center better in the league than Jason Kelce.  And, there are a lot of people who believe that Evan Mathis is the best guard in the league.  That means that when (if) Mathis comes back, 3/5 of this line will be the best in the league at their position.  Throw in the solid veteran of Herremans and an athletic Top-4 pick in Lane Johnson (who will be back Week 5), and you have an ELITE offensive line – probably the best in the game – which is enabling all of that magic to happen around them.  And, I can’t wait for the next act…

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Better Call Stri: The Ray Rice Fiasco Response

Those are really good questions. I agree that we can quickly rule out the theory that Goodell saw the tape and is just bald faced lying about it. If he saw the tape, he isn’t the only one who knows he saw the tape, and if it came out that he was lying about that he could kiss his job goodbye. So, that leads us to your question of why didn’t Goodell see the tape?

It wasn’t that the NFL couldn’t get the tape (it was briefly available online). It wasn’t that Goodell (or anyone else) wanted plausible deniability. Plain and simple, it was arrogance.

The day after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for 2 games, ESPN published an article about the suspension. ELEVEN paragraphs down in the article was this little tidbit: “Rice allegedly struck Palmer unconscious on Feb. 15 while in a casino elevator in Atlantic City. Video surfaced online showing Rice dragging an apparently unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. The couple has since married.”

So, you’re Roger Goodell, master of the universe, commissioner of the NFL, $44 million dollar man, highly experienced in these types of discipline issues, with a bevy of the smartest lawyers, advisors, and PR people at your disposal. You know: (i) Rice struck Palmer, (ii) the blow was allegedly so severe that it struck Palmer unconscious, (iii) he dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator, and (iv) the couple has since married. This has been widely reported by reliable sources. You have interviewed Ray Rice, who has ADMITTED to this exact series of events. Don’t you have enough information at this point to decide what the discipline will be? I mean, we’re not solving the Kennedy assassination here. There aren’t conflicting accounts to sort through. Do you have to actually witness his hand making contact with her head to figure out how many games he gets for knocking his wife unconscious?

Besides, if there were anything on that tape that dramatically changed the analysis, surely it would have come out by now. The alleged incident happened Feb. 15. The discipline happened July 24. It was well know what the admitted to facts were for almost 6 months. The damn video was briefly posted ONLINE. No protests, no boycotts, no letters from the national organization of women, no mass press coverage. Compare that to Michael Vick and Donald Sterling. DAYS after those allegations surfaced, the internet blew up. These were major, major, major stories, almost instantaneously. Roger Goodell is a prudent guy — he waited through six months of near silence (compared to Sterling and Vick anyway) before issuing the discipline…this was yesterday’s news.

The 2 game ban is issued on July 24 and ESPN reports in the story announcing the freaking bad (in paragraph 11) that he knocked his wife unconscious in an elevator. The response? Virtually crickets. No protests, no boycotts, no NOW letters. No cuts by the Ravens. At worst, the reaction was mild condemnation of the penalty as too light. But not even the critics were suggesting an indefinite ban.

Goodell didn’t see the video, because he didn’t need to see the video. He had all the facts he needed to have, and he had waited ample time to gauge public opinion.

So why was the punishment so light? Here is the dirty little secret we just uncovered: Absent a obvious risk to the image (and, thus, bottom line of the league), the powers that be in the NFL think that knocking your fiancé unconscious in an elevator really deserves a two game ban. If Roger Goodell and the rest of the entire world HAD seen the video in February, and there was no public uproar about it by July 23, Ray Rice would have been banned 2 games on July 24. It wasn’t that Goodell got the suspension wrong because he didn’t see the video. He got the suspension wrong because he didn’t anticipate that the video could (or would) change public opinion so completely.

Logically, this all kind of makes sense. I admit to burning down your house in open court. You agree that’s what I did. Does the jury need to see a video of me lighting the match and actually placing it on your house to sentence me? Intellectually, you want to say no. But then you see the video and maybe I’m stumbling around drunk when I do it. Or maybe I’m stone cold sober and laughing like a maniac. Well, now it matters. A lot. Who knew?

Ray Rice got off with a light 2 game ban because that is what Goodell and the rest of the NFL bigwigs thought that his conduct deserved, given all the factors (including public reaction and damage to the NFL’s brand) that existed on July 23. Then, public reaction shifted dramatically, and now they say they “got it wrong” because they “didn’t see the tape.” So they do a 180 and give the customers what they want. Because nobody ever got rich actually telling the American public that they’re wrong. Not seeing a tape is just a fig leaf they’re using. Because “we didn’t give a crap, tape or no tape, until the public freaked” may be true, but it isn’t the PR message you want to be sending out right now.

The stark and sobering reality is that Goodell seeing that tape before issuing the first suspension wouldn’t have made one whit of difference. The only thing that would have changed anything is if the mass public saw — and reacted — before the first suspension came down.

Two other quick points. First, I do think that it mattered greatly that Janay forgave him and married him. To quote Paul George, Goodell was (at least partially) thinking: “I don’t condone hitting women or think it’s cool, but if she ain’t trippin then I ain’t trippin.”

Second, I’ve done my share of internal investigations. They’re not easy. They’re constantly evolving and they never quite end up where you think they will. That’s why these leagues sometimes hire serious people: $2500 lawyers, former U.S. attorneys, former director of the fbi, to conduct the investigations. You’re absolutely right that the cardinal rules are: get out in front of the controversy and get ALL the information. But those two things ALWAYS conflict. Getting out in front requires you to move fast. Getting all the information requires you to move slow, to subpoena video tapes, to fight out those subpoenas in court if need be. Sometimes you can’t do both.

Goodell’s primary sin wasn’t failing to watch the video tape (although that certainly was A sin). His primary sin was thinking that a 2 game ban was appropriate for a player knocking out his fiancé in an elevator. Some of the most damaging scandals occur when you get caught saying something you really believe.

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Better Call Stri: The Ray Rice Fiasco

Have a legal question?  Better call Stri.

And, sports these days are full of legal questions.  It’s a good thing we now have one of the best legal minds on the payroll here at BSB.  So, here’s the first installment of “Better Call Stri,”  where try and get some insight into the legal rationale of some of these crazy off-the-field sports stories that seem to be coming up at a ridiculous rate these days (I “blame” social media and the 24-hour news cycle, but we can blame them for everything, right?)

Anyway, this whole Ray Rice thing has been run into the ground, so I will save any soapboxing or pointless self-aggrandizing comments like “where I come from, we don’t hit our women” or “my parents raised me to treat all people with respect.”  Those serve no purpose in useful conversations other than to waste time with the obvious.

No, what I am fascinated by – and want to get Stri’s legal opinion on – is just how could the most powerful sports league in the nation (if not the world) screw this up so badly?

To me, there are two key aspects of this story – (1) why did Goodell come down on Rice so lightly in the first place, and (2) why is he now claiming not to have seen the tape?

So, counselor, mind if we start with the second one first because this is the part that I honestly cannot even wrap my head around?

First, let us establish some givens before we embark here.  One, let us assume that Roger Goodell – for whatever you think of him – is a highly intelligent man or, at the VERY least is surrounded by highly intelligent people.  Two, let us also assume that his $44 million annual salary does actually ensure that everything he does is keeping the best interests of the league (and by “league,” I simply mean its 32 owners) paramount.  So, why would he say he didn’t see the tape?

Can we first dismiss out of hand that he saw it and is now lying about it?  That would be inanely stupid, and if that is the case, then it is not worth talking about anything else because we are just dealing with flat stupidity.  There is no way he would think he could get away with a bald-faced lie of that caliber.

So, now we are working under the assumption that he actually did not see a tape of which he admits to having knowledge at the time of his ill-fated decision to suspend Rice for 2 games.  Why didn’t he see the tape?  Are we really to believe that he – and all the power/money that his league wields – was simply unable to get his hands on it?  We know that the casino had it.  We know that the police had it.  We know that Rice (or, at least his lawyers) had it.  And, we know that it only took TMZ less than a month to get it.  So, can we really believe that they COULD NOT get it?  At the very least, they could have said to Rice, “you are suspended until you show us the tape and then we will decide on when to reinstate you.”

So, the only next logical step is that they CHOSE not to view the tape.  This is the part that I really need some input here, Stri.  Why would they choose not to see it?  They know it is out there.  They probably know that it is going to come out.  And, they know that their level of punishment will be – fairly or unfairly – judged based almost exclusively on the level of emotional reaction that this tape will stir up in the general public.  So, why not?

The only logical conclusion I can come up with here is plausible deniability.  Am I right here, counselor?  Did Goodell decide that he wanted plausible deniability about the contents of the tape before taking action on the suspension.  And, if so, why?

That “why” is the perfect segue into the first question posed at the beginning here – Why did Goodell come down so lightly on Ray Rice in the first place – tape or no tape?  Why did the guy who has legitimately earned a reputation of unwavering commitment to “law and order,” to the point of nearly alienating his entire labor force, now come down so SOFT on a player?!?  Who is Ray Rice and why is Goodell picking Rice as the one for whom he risks it all?  Why is he so hellbent on giving Rice a punishment that is, AT BEST, on the LIGHTEST possible side of defensible and, at worst, a conscious slap in the face to all those affected and/or appalled by domestic violence in any form?  Why is this so important to him to let Rice off easy that he had to go out of his way to attain plausible deniability of a potential “smoking gun?”

Stri, any ideas?

Did they think that they could get away with letting the facts come out, weighing public opinion, and then thinking they could just alter their course to maintain alignment with public sentiment?  The “new” policy on domestic violence may be evidence of this way of thinking – along with the indefinite suspension of Rice after the tape riled up such an incredible reaction.

Did Goodell, a strong family man, just get swayed by the pleadings of a victim – a wife – to not be punished more by taking away her livelihood?  Did he believe that her husband had never done it before and would certainly never do it again.  Or, did he just find a soft spot for a “first-time offender,” who was, by all accounts, a pillar in the community (which seemed definitely to be true to me, living here during his entire career) and his pleading wife?  Was this punishment just a lenient judgment from a bleeding-hearted family man?  While it sound unlikely that this is the case, I guess it is not out of the realm of possibility that Goodell simply felt bad that this happened, saw it as a heat-of-the-moment mistake by an otherwise good man.  BUT… even if Goodell was swayed by the soon-to-be Mrs. Rice and her “first-time-offender” of a husband, doesn’t he have advisors?  Isn’t he surrounded be a swath of people whose only job is to “protect the shield,” particularly from negative publicity?  Where were they?

Or, maybe we should get all “conspiracy theory” here and say that this all had to do with Jim Irsay.  Maybe Goodell wanted to go light on Irsay, but did not want to risk total mutiny by continuing to levy harsh penalties to players, while not doing the same to those who pay his salary?  So, he let Rice of light, thought it would blow over before he gave Irsay a slightly harsher punishment (though much lighter than he probably deserves), and that’s that.

Or, is it something else that I have not even thought of?

Either way, there is not a reason that I can think of that could possibly explain the fact that this very savvy and experienced public leader broke the ultimate tenets of restoring and retaining public image:  (a) get out in front of a controversy and, going hand-in-hand with that, (b) always make sure that you have ALL the information.  Right?  What am I missing here, esteemed gentleman of the law?

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BSB’s 2014 NFL Preview

For those of you unfamiliar with the preview, instead of the typical, been-done-again-and-again season previews, we like to make a game out of our previews, along with being informative. What we do is kind of a draft process, where we try and decide whether we think a team will get better or worse from last year’s record. Then, at the end of the year, we see who did a better job of predicting. It’s interesting to see just how different the seasons of some teams turn out, in retrospect. Check out our past previews to see what I’m talking about. Doogan took our first one in 2008, 17-15, but Bry responded with a come-from-behind 17-15 win in the 2009 version. In 2010, Doogan won by the familiar 17-15 score and followed that up in 2011, with a dominating 19-13 victory to become the first back-to-back winner of the NFL preview. Having not won since 2009, Bry came back with a vengeance in 2012, winning 21-11.  However, Doogan took the title right back in 2013 with a pretty easy 18-14 win (post reposted just below this one updated with last year’s results).  This is now the seventh NFL preview we’ve done (which is HARD to believe) with Doogan holding a 4-2 all-time lead.  Bry needs this one and, fortunately for him, will get the #1 pick to try and do it.

1). BRY – Houston Texans – OVER 2 wins: It seems general practice in these things that the #1 pick is almost always the Over on one of the worst teams in the NFL the previous year.  I will not buck that trend, as there seems no way that the Texans can’t pick up 3 freaking wins.  I mean they have 5 games on their schedule that are against either the Jags, the Titans, or the Raiders.  Even if they go 2-3 in those 5, they only need to find one more win in the other 11 games.  With the addition of JaDaveon Clowney and the subtraction of Matt Schaub, this team HAS to be better than 2-14.

2). DOOGAN – Washington Redskins – OVER 3 wins: I’ll stay right there with you on a the bottom-feeders.  The defense looks like it will suck again, but there’s definitely reason to think the offense will be improved.  Our old friend D-Jax is a massive upgrade over the receivers they had opposite Pierre Garcon last year.  It’s a nice collection of weapons on offense, and a new coaching regime should be able to improve on what they produced last year.  I know there’s some hand-wringing going on over RGIII but he’ll probably be fine.

3). DOOGAN – Atlanta Falcons- OVER 4 wins: I don’t think I’m as bullish on the Falcons as many (I don’t think they’re a playoff team), but there’s no reason to think they aren’t better than a 4-win team.  They had injuries all over their offense last season, and with Julio Jones and Roddy White healthy, and with some new additions to the O-Line, they should be back to where they were in 2012, which means about 70 more points scored over the course of the season.  But the underrated story was the decline of their defense last year.  They’ve made some veteran additions there, but I’m not sure they’re good enough to turn it around.  They’ll hover around .500.

4). BRY – Carolina Panthers – UNDER 12 wins: Well, you took my next two picks.  Is it a bad sign that I already think this is getting tough?  I’m usually bullish on the Panthers, but not this year.  Their receiving corps is dreadful, unless you think the rookie Kelvin Benjamin can have a big year (and, if you know anything about rookie WRs, you don’t think that).  And, Cam is starting the season banged up.  Throw in the fact that every other team in this division looks markedly improved and you’ve got too much against this team for a really good defense to carry them anywhere near 12 wins again this year.  I think they’ll be lucky to hit 9 or 10, but more likely in the 7 or 8 area.

5).  DOOGAN – Kansas City Chiefs – UNDER 11 wins: There were five that stood out to me as “easy” calls, this being the 5th.  We’ll see how many actually turn out to be that easy.  This is a situation where the Chiefs were obviously not as good as the 11 wins indicates.  Not only did they finish the regular season 2-5 after the 9-0 start, but of all those 11 wins they beat exactly one playoff team (the Eagles way back in Week 3).  They won’t get the favors from the schedule this year, especially matching up with the NFC West.  That’s bad news for the offense, who lost a couple offensive line starters and versatile playmaker Dexter McCluster and replaced them with…basically nothing.  A strong (if maybe overrated) defense and a very pedestrian offense against a tough schedule.  They’ll be under .500.

6). BRY – Green Bay Packers – OVER 8 wins: There are few organizations in sports (and maybe none in the NFL) as well-run as the Green Bay Packers.  They have the history coupled with constant relevance.  They have a rabid fanbase that is pure, loyal, and local.  And, most importantly, they have – in my opinion – the single best football player on the planet.  They missed that player for 9 games last year and still won the division.  I’m not sold on the Lions or Bears and the Vikings are most likely not going to play a role in the division race, so I don’t see much chance that this division is not won by the guys from Green Bay.  Put me down for 10 or 11 wins, a division title, and quite possibly a surprise trip to the Super Bowl.

7). DOOGAN – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OVER 4 wins: Felt a lot better about this one when I remembered the massive upgrade they made at head coach, going from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith.  Smith is a proven defensive coach, so I’m not too worried about the loss of Darrelle Revis.  On offense, Josh McCown takes over at QB after playing really well in place of Jay Cutler in Chicago last year.  Granted, McCown won’t have the weapons he had with the Bears, but the cupboard isn’t bare with Vincent Jackson and 1st-Round pick Mike Evans in the receiving corps.  They also made some solid improvements on the O-line with two free agent additions and the big trade yesterday that netted them All-Pro guard Logan Mankins from New England.  They can definitely get to 8 wins.

8). BRY – Cleveland Browns – OVER 4 wins: I think this is the third straight year that I have taken the Browns and the Over.  And, this will probably be the third straight year that I get it wrong.  You know how hard it is to get worse in the NFL 3 straight years?  Well, this year I’m taking them not because of Johnny f’ing Football (that guy sucks), but because I think they might have a Top 5 defense.  Yes, top 5.  They did lose the underrated D’Qwell Jackson, but that might be a bigger deal for the Jackson Greys than the Cleveland Browns.  Joe Haden is an ELITE corner.  Justin Gilbert – their first-round pick – could walk right in and be adequate on the other side.  Barkavious Mingo is in his second year and a possible stud in the making.  And, they added some attitude with Donte Hitner (formerly Whitner, but officially changed his legal name because he “hits” so hard).  And, I think with what they lack in offensive weapons, they can negate some of that with their elite offensive line, including Joe Thomas – maybe the best O-lineman in football.  I’ll be realistic and only ask for 6 wins, but that’s more than 4.

9). DOOGAN – San Francisco 49ers – UNDER 12 wins: Not my usual move to go Under this early on a really good team, but I see red flags all over the place with this team.  First, the more concrete problems.  Three of their four starters in the secondary have left in free agency and the replacements are a mix of unproven and past their prime (Antoine Bethea).  At linebacker, Aldon Smith is a disaster off the field and we’ll see if he even plays the 11 games he did last year.  All-Pro freak Navorro Bowman (PSU alum, I must add) is out for at least half the year and will not be 100% when he does come back after blowing out his knee.  So, all of a sudden, this great defense has some real concerns.  I don’t like the Kaepernick off-the-field distractions.  Not good from your quarterback.  And, finally, there’s been so many rumors about Harbaugh wanting out and trying to get to a new team.  Who knows, but where there’s smoke there’s fire and it’s a distraction and also maybe says something about how Harbaugh views this team moving forward.  OK, that’s my long-winded way of saying the Niners are dropping from 12 wins to 10 this year.

10). BRY – Cincinnati Bengals – UNDER 11 wins: Doogan, I think you’ve literally taken my next pick every single time.  But, anyway, let’s continue my recent trend of duplicating wrong picks I made last year.  I took the Bengals Under-10 last year, and they won 11.  So, I’m doubling-down here this year.  They might still win this division (though, I would definitely take the field), but I think that Mike Zimmer made more of a difference than people may realize on the defensive side.  I think that they take a slight step back defensively and nothing forward offensively.  Plus, 11 is a pretty big number in a relatively tough division.  10, tops, for this Bengals team.

11). DOOGAN – Denver Broncos – UNDER 13 wins: I don’t feel great about this at all, and they burned me last year, but I’ll go for it again.  Peyton threw a ridiculous 55 touchdowns last year.  Can the offense keep up that sort of production?  Every historical precedent says no.  Peyton’s a year older, Eric Decker is gone, Welker already has another concussion this year, there are legit questions with the running backs.  I know, Manning is not like other mere mortals and even at 38 he can probably take guys like Emmanuel Sanders and Monte Ball and make them stars.  But the schedule will get tougher this year as they matchup with the NFC West.  Logic says they’ll step back to 11-5.

12). BRY – Arizona Cardinals – UNDER 10 wins: I really don’t know what to think about the Cardinals.  Their defense seems terrific, but they lost Daryl Washington for the season due to a drug suspension, and I think they may have overachieved a little bit last year.  But, even if they’re the ’85 Bears or ’91 Eagles, they play in the best division in football with Carson Palmer at QB.  10 seems like an awfully big number to me.

13). DOOGAN – Detroit Lions – OVER 7 wins: They have a basically league-average defense in Detroit with just about all the same guys back from last year.  A great front led by Suh and Ziggy Ansah, with some shaky secondary play.  On offense, you think of them as really good but they somehow ranked just 13th in the league in points last year.  Put those things together and 7 wins makes sense.  I’ll bet on the offense improving.  I’m not totally sold on Stafford and maybe he’s the problem, but they have the best receiver in the league, two nice running backs, and they’ve added solid Golden Tate opposite Megatron and 10th overall pick Eric Ebron at tight end.  They look more like a 9-10 win team.

14). BRY – Seattle Seahawks – UNDER 13 wins: The defending Super Bowl champs look fantastic in the preseason and are the odds-on favorites to win again this year.  And, I think that if you gave me the same odds on every team to win the Super Bowl, I would probably take Seattle.  But, winning the Super Bowl and winning 13 regular season games are two very different things.  13 is just a huge number.  And, the past decade or so hasn’t been too kind to teams coming off Super Bowl appearances.  I think they still win the NFC West rather handily and probably even homefield advantage.  But, I think there’s a better chance of 12-4 or worse than another 13-3 season.

15). DOOGAN – Indianapolis Colts – UNDER 11 wins: The Colts have two big things going for them:  Andrew Luck and playing in a really weak division.  But what else do they really have?  They made no significant improvements to their roster in the offseason, apparently operating under the assumption that their young core will just get better and they already won 11 games, so why worry?  That’s just not really how it works in the NFL.  Especially when you have Reggie Wayne trying to come back from a blown knee at age 35 and Robert Mathis coming off a monster season, but one in which he was suspended late for performance-enhancing drugs.  Throw in the fact that Houston figures to be much better as a divisonal foe, and it’s easy to see these guys dropping to 9-7.

16). BRY – Minnesota Vikings – OVER 5 wins: I don’t think the Vikes are all that good, and I don’t think they’re a playoff team.  But, I do think that they have a relatively workable schedule, one of the best players of our generation, and a pretty low bar of 5 wins.  Plus, we don’t know how much this new outdoors Minneapolis homefield is going to treat them in November and December.  The Vikes won’t be all that relevant, but I think 5 wins is probably the low-end of their possibilities.  Put me down for a 6-10 or 7-9 Vikings team.

17). DOOGAN – New York Jets – UNDER 8 wins: There’s some talk around the Jets this season that goes something like:  Hey, Geno Smith looked good in the preseason.  And he has Chris Johnson and Eric Decker as new weapons to use.  And the defense is always good.  So…they should be pretty good, right?  Admittedly, not a ton of people are buying into that talk, and I’m not one of them.  I’ll believe it when I see it with this offense, and the defense was actually NOT all that good last year (19th in points allowed), and they’ve made no improvements to that side of the ball.  I’ve never been a big Rex Ryan believer, and I think this is his final go-round at the Meadowlands.

18). BRY – Pittsburgh Steelers – OVER 8 wins: If you’ve focused predominantly on the Eagles this preseason, then (a) I don’t blame you, they look great and (b) you might have a warped sense of who the Steelers are this year.  They looked really bad in the all-important 3rd preseason game against the Eagles.  So bad, in fact, that they kept their first teams out there well into the second half against all the Eagles #2s – and still couldn’t get anything done.  But, I think that that game was an anomaly, and I actually might declare the Steelers as my pick to win what should be a pretty intense 3-team race in the AFC North.  I think Roethlisberger is an underappreciated star (and world-class human being, obviously), and the team looked really good down the stretch last year.  They lost Emmanuel Sanders to Denver, but he wasn’t that important.  And, the under-the-radar aspect of their 8-8 2013 season is that they had NO running game.  But, this year Laveon Bell could make the leap, and they added a nice complement in LaGarrette Blount (all blunt jokes aside).  And, maybe the biggest upgrade should be on a defense that started to look old last year, but added some key pieces, including first-round pick, Ryan Shazier, who, by all accounts looks like a star from the jump.  And, they have the best d-coordinator to ever live still running that side of the ball.  I think they win the division, which means at least 9 wins.

19).  DOOGAN – Dallas Cowboys – UNDER 8 wins: Can Dallas go 8-8 for the fourth straight year?  Fortunately, I don’t think so.  I can’t deny that they have a decent enough offense, even if Romo is the biggest choke artist in sports at the moment.  But this defense might be worst in football, and that’s just not gonna get you a winning record.  I used to really hate Jerry Jones, but I’ve come around on him.  In fact, I hope he keeps owning (and making football decisions for) the Cowboys for a long, long time.

20). BRY – Jacksonville Jaguars – OVER 4 wins: This is not a good team…at all.  But, 5 wins are not that many in a league of parity.  And, they looked pretty solid at the end of the year last season – when they actually had legitimate NFL quarterback play.  This year they will start with the serviceable Chad Henne and probably enter the incredibly promising rookie, Blake Bortles (who has been excellent in the preseason).  I also think that – gasp – Toby Gerhart might actually be an upgrade to the aging MJD.  The defense is still a work in progress, but coming along – particularly on the defensive line, where they have a stable of excellent “big uglies” to rotate in.  Put me down for 6 wins down in Jacksonville this year.  Fortunately, one of them will NOT be Week One.

21).  DOOGAN – New England Patriots – UNDER 12 wins: Damn you, Bry.  I really tried not to end up betting against the Pats.  I looked hard at every other team still on the board here, but I just couldn’t leave this big number out there anymore.  You waited me out on this one.  It’s Belichick.  It’s Brady.  There’s no reason to think they can’t win 12 games.  But most of the numbers left on the board are just so hard to call one way or the other.

22). BRY – St. Louis Rams – UNDER 7 wins: Yep, I waited just long enough (I had them next up, too).  Instead, I’ll bet on double-digit losses from the worst team in a division before they lost their starting QB for the season.  Granted, Sam Bradford isn’t exactly an extreme difference-maker, but he is better than Shaun Hill, and the margin for error for this Rams team isn’t much in this division.  Their defense is terrific, but I still see 6-10 for this team.

23).  DOOGAN – Baltimore Ravens – OVER 8 wins: This division is very hard to predict, and it won’t be at all surprising if only one team ends up above .500.  If we’re just looking at franchise pedigree, it’s fair to bet against the Bengals being that team for the second straight year.  That leaves us with the Ravens and Steelers.  Bry has already hitched his wagon in this division with the Steel.  I’ll go with the Ravens to recover (somewhat) from their Super Bowl hangover of a year ago and scrap their way back atop the AFC North.

24). BRY – Chicago Bears – OVER 8 wins: I already have the Overs on the Packers and Vikings, and Doogan has the Over on the Lions, so I guess it’s fair to say that we think the NFC North will be vastly improved.  I do not like this defense all that much, as the worst defense in Bears history lost Julius Peppers.  But, the offense could be sensational.  The weapons around a healthy Jay Cutler are tremendous with top-5 RB Matt Forte and two elite wideouts in Marshall and Jeffrey.  Throw in a solid (but lazy) TE in Martellus Bennett and a lottery card in Santonio Holmes, and I think this offense could be one of the best in football.  Does that mean a division title or a dozen wins?  Probably not.  But, I could see 9+ as more likely than .500 or below.

25). DOOGAN – Miami Dolphins – OVER 8 wins: Part of my plan for this pick (and my Pats Under pick) is to have the Dolphins knock off the Pats at home this Sunday.  There’s obviously an opening for somebody to be the second-best team in this division, and while there’s obviously no guarantee that that second place team will have a winning record, I’ll say Miami pulls it off.  A pretty decent defense combined with a young quarterback who now has two full years of starting experience, minus the circus sideshow of whatever happened with that Martin/Incognito thing last year.  A lot of easy wins on the slate (Bills and Jets twice, Raiders, Jags, Vikings).  9-7 season for the Fins.

26). BRY – Oakland Raiders – OVER 4 wins: This is probably the worst team in football, and they were not made any better in the short-term when they named rookie 2nd-round pick Derrick Carr as the starter Week One against the Jets.  They are an old, cap-strapped team that doesn’t have any talent or any real hope for the future.  BUT…the NFL is a league with a very strong pull towards mediocrity, so I will just pray that this team somehow scrapes out 5 wins in the process of being the worst team – on paper – in the league.

27). DOOGAN – Philadelphia Eagles – UNDER 10 wins: We’ve reached the point where if you asked me to throw out my best guess for how many games any of the teams left will win, I’m pretty sure I would say the exact number that they won last year.  I wouldn’t say I’m “down” on the Birds (like I was last year), because I think they’ll win 10 games and the division and be a tough out in January.  BUT, I look at this schedule, and I just think 9 wins is more likely than 11.  You can talk about the division being easy, but NFC East games are usually pretty tough, and there may be no total pushovers in the bunch.  Throw in four games against the NFC West and road games at Green Bay and Indy, and you can find a lot of losses out there if you’re looking for them.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the defense makes a big improvement, but I don’t have a ton of reason to think that’s coming.

28). San Diego Chargers – OVER 9 wins: I got talked into this one by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders.  Apparently, the arrows are all pointing in the right direction for the Chargers and he said “It wouldn’t shock me if they were 13-3.”  Huh?!?!?!?  But, I will take his word for it because I agree with Doogan in that every pick left of the board looks like it will hit the number.  But, the Chiefs are falling back and the Raiders stink, so the Chargers are clearly the 2nd-best team in the division.  Yes, they get the NFC West, but this is a relatively young team with a potential star coach in Mike McCoy (who should have been coach of the year last year, in my opinion), so I guess I’ll take the Chargers for double-digit wins…cringe.  PS…Doogan, I would have gone OVER on the Birds, so thanks for keeping the site relatively objective.

29). DOOGAN – New Orleans Saints – UNDER 11 wins: Starting in ’09 and skipping the season where Sean Payton was suspended and everything went crazy for them, the Saints win totals have gone 13, 11, 13, 11.  So, does that mean they’re headed for 13 wins this year?  Very possibly!  Are those numbers a good reason to go Under here on 11?  No!  But whatever, when you think the number is right it makes sense to go below on a big number.  Can the Saints defense match the solid year they had last year?  Maybe, but they were the worst defense in the league two years ago, so we’ll see.

30). BRY – Tennessee Titans – OVER 7 wins: We’re just throwing darts here, right?  I like Jake Locker (and, I might be the only one…), and I think the AFC South is the worst division in football.  4 games with Jacksonville and Houston will help, and I don’t think Indy is unbeatable.  Plus, they get to play the second-worst division in the league, the NFC East, as well.  I think 8 wins is more likely than 6 wins, so I’ll take the Over on 7.

31). DOOGAN – New York Giants – UNDER 7 wins: I actually feel pretty good about my last pick here, and not just because of Under on the G-Men.  It would be hard to argue that this team is really any good, so Under on a mid-range number seems pretty clear.  The O-Line was a disaster last year and they’ve brought in new people, but that doesn’t mean it’s fixed.  They have nobody at running back and a rookie starting at wide-out opposite Victor Cruz.  I don’t see a mid-30′s Eli being able to do much with this group around him.  They lost Linval Joseph and a still-decent Justin Tuck from a defense that was already pretty poor.  Probably the farewell tour for Tom Coughlin at the Meadowlands.

32). BRY – Buffalo Bills – UNDER 6 wins: Yeah, I have been weighing the Giants Under for about 10 picks now, but just couldn’t do it because I feel like I make that pick every year, and every year I look like a Giants hater (which is totally true).  But, as I am stuck here with the last pick, I would love to call a push here, as 6-10 sounds exactly right.  But, honestly, for a 32nd pick, this isn’t terrible because there is no way this team wins 7+, so I just have to dodge 6-10 to get a point here, which is probably a coin flip.  E.J. Manual stinks – as evidenced by their signing of Kyle Orton out of retirement.  But, the defense is probably good enough to make me sweat this out.

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BSB’s 2013 NFL Preview

For those of you unfamiliar with the preview, instead of the typical, been-done-again-and-again season previews, we like to make a game out of our previews, along with being informative. What we do is kind of a draft process, where we try and decide whether we think a team will get better or worse from last year’s record. Then, at the end of the year, we see who did a better job of predicting. It’s interesting to see just how different the seasons of some teams turn out, in retrospect. Check out our past previews to see what I’m talking about. Doogan took our first one in 2008, 17-15, but Bry responded with a come-from-behind 17-15 win in the 2009 version. In 2010, Doogan won by the familiar 17-15 score and followed that up in 2012, with a dominating 19-13 victory to become the first back-to-back winner of the NFL preview. Having not won since 2009, Bry came back with a vengeance, taking last year’s contest, 21-11. Doogan will try to rebound here in 2013, as he gets the first pick this year.

1) DOOGAN – Kansas City Chiefs – OVER 2 wins: Big Red lives! Everyone’s acting like Alex Smith is a Hall of Fame quarterback just because he’s replacing guys that were a disaster. I’m not sure he’ll be all that good but, despite what we saw in Philly a year ago, Andy knows how to coach an offense. And the defense is fairly loaded, led by one of my favorite non-Eagles in the league, Tamba Hali. Some are saying they could go from the bottom of the league to a playoff berth. Let’s just call it 6-10, though.

FINAL RECORD: 11-5
DOOGAN 1 – BRY 0
Doogan takes an easy point here, as the Coach Reid coaches ‘em up to 11 wins and a playoff berth.  Doogan even undershot this first pick.

2). BRY – Philadelphia Eagles – OVER 4 wins: It is not interesting to most that I would take the home team here because I always seem overly bullish on the Eagles. But, it is interesting to me because I seem like a bit of a wet blanket when talking about the Birds this year. I think they are still a ways away from serious contention (though, this division is just bad enough to change our definition of “contention”). That being said, I think that this team had WAY more than 4-win talent last year, and I think they have WAY more than 4-win talent this year. They may even have a playoff-caliber offense. The defense is quite suspect, but the schedule is really soft. Put me down for 6 or 7 wins for the Birds with the needle firmly pointed upwards.

FINAL RECORD: 10-6
BRY 1 – DOOGAN 1
Bry also picks up an easy point with his first pick – undershooting this one, as well.  The one and only Coach Kelly turned a 4-win team into a division champ.  Fly, Eagles, Fly!

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The Prodigal Turncoat Returns!

Four years ago, Lebron James went on TV and in the most ridiculous spectacle in recent memory announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach.” Immediately, every teenage boy in America had a new euphemism for taking a dump. This was fitting given Lebron’s “Decision” was to leave the Cavs, his hometown team that had drafted him with the first pick, to join what was then Wade’s team in Miami along with Bosh.

I killed Lebron for that decision. As did pretty much the entire sports world outside of the state of Florida. We had the best player in the world abandoning his team for “help” chasing rings somewhere else. This wasn’t a washed up Malone and Payton going to the Lakers for one last gasp. Or Shaq being pushed out of LA because of Kobe and then going on to win a ring in Miami. This was “The King”, in his prime, voluntarily choosing to play in someone else’s court.

My absolute favorite description of the Decision actually came from someone defending Lebron:

“James loves to have fun. He’s not a killer, like Michael Jordan. He’s not a harping-on-the-court-coach, pain-in-the-rear like Kobe. He doesn’t need to win like he needs his next breath, like Lance Armstrong. He is goofy and funny and whimsical. The fake camera shots, the dancing, the chalk. He was like that in high school and he’s still like that. So why should anybody be surprised when he wants to play with his friends in a city that’s 97 percent fun? The Miami Heat are the perfect fit for James. It’s Dwyane Wade’s team. Wade can be the killer, like he was while winning a ring in 2006. James will just dunk, swat layups and do his Kid n’ Play impressions. You could see it in how much he loved the over-the-top bacchanalia the Heat put on for the Three Rise Men — fireworks, fog, voguing down the catwalk. You may want him to be something else, but he’s not. What are you going to do, sue?”

“You may want him to be something else, but he’s not.” Still true.

********

After Lebron went to Miami, the rest became history. In four years, the three amigos have been to four finals, winning two of them. But what have we really learned over that period? That he can get a team through the atrocious east and then win a 7 game series playing with Wade and Bosh? Not to put too fine a point on it, but so what? I bet a starting five of Wade, Durant, Lebron, Bosh, and Duncan would win it all too. Color me unimpressed.

But then, after winning two championships, a funny thing happened on the way to that three-peat. The Heat got their collective asses kicked by a better basketball “team.” The less athletic Spurs, largely using ball movement and fundamental basketball, dismantled the best player in the world and his little boy band of south beach collusiveness. It was eerily similar to all of those times that Kobe and Jordan had their teams get spanked in 5 (with FOUR double digit losses) in a finals series when they were playing with two other all stars they had hand picked. Wait a minute, I’m getting word that never happened.

So, The King’s hand picked team just got hammered for the first time since they joined up together. How will he respond? Like the great ones do. By working even harder with his teammates and coaching staff so it will never happen again and going into F.U. mode in four straight playoff series next year. Right? Hello? Wait a minute, I’m getting word that’s not how he’ll respond at all.

How will Lebron respond to his first bit of adversity since leaving the Cavs? ABANDON SHIP!!! ABANDON SHIP!!! Attention, Attention: Lebroney needs more help! Get Lebroney more help!! Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s hope the press spins this into a great “story” about Lebron coming “home” to “atone” for the way he left.

Horse manure.

Lebron is going back to Cleveland because playing on a team with Kyrie, Wiggins, and potentially Kevin Love, on a team with future cap space (with wiggins on a rookie deal and kyrie on a lower “max”) and draft picks they can use as currency (the heat traded all their picks to cle in the sign and trade to get LeBron) gives Lebron a better chance to win championships over the next four years than staying in Miami with a capped out team, no picks, and a breaking down Wade. He’s like Malone and Peyton in their final years, every year.

What’s the matter Lebron, couldn’t you have signed a 1 year deal with the Spurs? Or would that have been too transparent? How about this: maybe instead of choosing your team now, just hang out until you see which teams make the finals, and then sign a ten day contract with whoever you think has a better chance to win. If you’re going to be this guy, then at least be up front about it and go the full 9.

Or, just continue to be such a front runner, that you’ll go back to playing for a guy who publicly called you a “coward” in a city that BURNED YOUR JERSEY IN EFFIGY. I think that if the Columbus KKK’s had an all star team and a max contract slot, we’d see Lebron wearing all white next year.

Oh, and to the fans who burned Lebron’s Jersey four years ago and are now buying season tickets to cheer for him? You’re a bunch of hypocrites.

********

One guy I don’t feel at all bad for in this is D. Wade. Four years ago, you must have been thinking what a coup it was that you could get the best player in the world to leave his HOME team and play for yours. And you got two more rings out of it, so congrats. But don’t act all wounded when he leaves the second you guys start to have problems for greener pastures. The cowardly turncoat giveth, and the cowardly turncoat taketh away.

I may want him to be something else, but he’s not.

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World Cup Quarterfinals Predictions

France vs. Germany

A classic clash of European powers, but they come in to this one from opposite positions.  Germany was seen as one of the big favorites coming in, but since that opening demolition of Portugal, they’ve failed to impress much.  Meanwhile, France came in with fairly low expectations, especially when Franck Ribery went down with an injury, but they’ve arguably been the best team in the tournament to this point.  This is a tricky pick for me, as the Germans were my pick to win it all and the French were my “sleeper” pick.  I have to stick with the quality of the Germans.  I wonder if they will put Miroslav Klose or Andre Schurrle into the starting line-up, because they’ve really struggled to find goals over their past two games.  I’ll go with Germany 2-1.

Brazil vs. Colombia

Somewhat similar to Germany/France, with a big favorite who has underwhelmed against a team that has rolled through with four relatively easy wins to this point.  But, this time, I’m going with the upset.  Part of the reason I didn’t pick Brazil to win this tournament was because I felt like the pressure would just weigh them down and balance out any positive push they get from the home-field advantage.  I think we’ve seen that bear out in their performance, as well as the way that numerous players broke down in tears after their WIN over Chile.  I think they’re just wound up too tight, and with each successive step in this tournament it gets squeezed tighter.  Meanwhile, the Colombians have played with such confidence and ease.  They won’t have the home crowd in this one that they’ve had in the previous four games, but they’ve shown the talent to take down this Brazil team, and even to win this tournament.  Colombia knocks out the hosts with a 3-2 win.

Argentina vs. Belgium

As great as the two games on Friday are, this one is probably the most interesting for me.  I see it as virtually a coin flip game on a neutral field, but this isn’t a totally neutral field, of course.  Argentina is playing on their home continent and will certainly have the advantage in crowd support.  All that being said, I’m going with my Belgians in the upset.  Belgium has found yet another young talent in 19-year-old striker Divock Origi.  The big clubs of Europe will be falling all over each other trying to sign him away from Lille after this tournament.  And now Romelu Lukaku may have his confidence back after a great performance as a sub against the US.  It seems like they may have settled on the attacking midfield of Hazard, De Bruyne, and Mertens, with Witsel and Fellaini behind them.  It’s a monster front six, with a top notch goalkeeper that can hide some of the deficiencies in the back four.  I’ll say the Belgians find the goal in extra time for a 2-1 win.

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica

I haven’t, at any point, been a big believer in this Netherlands team, and it looked like they might be heading home as they trailed Mexico in the 88th minute last game.  But now they get, by far, the weakest quarterfinal opponent out there.  Costa Rica has shown themselves to be legit and they are hard to score on, with a strong defensive style and a really good keeper in Keylor Navas.  But I have to go with the Dutch to find a way and win this 1-0.

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Knockout Stage Round One – Predictions

The Group Stage is over.  My “Drinking from the World Cup” is over.  But the games go on.  Here’s my prediction for Saturday’s double-header.

Brazil vs. Chile

This may end up being a popular upset pick, after Chile looked really good in their first two games and Brazil was largely unimpressive (sorry, a rout of Cameroon doesn’t do much).  I was already down on Brazil coming into the tournament, and they definitely have done much to change my mind on that.  All that being said, I’ll go with the Brazilians here.  I see it locked up at 1-1 when the 90 minutes expires before Neymar pops one in extra time to win it 2-1 for Brazil.

Colombia vs. Uruguay

Could the Uruguayans find a way here, without Suarez?  Of course.  But the popular pick here will definitely be Colombia because they rolled through the Group Stage with three wins and now get a Uruguay team in some turmoil after all the Suarez controversy over the last few days.  I’ll stick with Colombia anyway.  They look like a team on a mission with some guys that are emerging as stars in James (that’s pronounced Ha-mez) Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, and Victor Ibarbo.  These guys have let the team forget about the loss of their star striker to injury.  I’ll take Colombia 3-1.

Netherlands vs. Mexico

Well, my predictions for yesterday were pretty good (Brazil/Chile going 1-1 into extra time with a Brazil win and Colombia with a 2-goal win) so I’m feeling some added pressure as we head into Day 2 of the Knockout Stage.  This is absolutely one of the best games of this round.  The Netherlands have been the most impressive team in the tournament so far and are a better team than Mexico.  That being said, I’m going with the Mexicans in an upset here.  We know the Dutch, back at full strength with Van Persie and Robben up top, will be looking to go on the attack.  The Mexican fullbacks, Layun and Aguilar, have been up attacking a lot in this tournament, but they’ll have to hang back to help deal with the Dutch attack.  But I think Mexico has shown the defensive discipline to (mostly) withstand the attack and hit on some counter-attacks.  I’ll say Chicharito comes on as a sub and scores the winner in a 2-1 Mexican victory.

Costa Rica vs. Greece

Probably the least interesting game of this round, as it pits two teams that weren’t expected to be here and, more concerning, two teams that play a defensive style.  I’ll keep it simple for this prediction.  Greece has done nothing to really impress so far, while the Costa Ricans won the “Group of Champions” (though with Uruguay being dominated yesterday, you can really question how tough that group was in the first place).  I like Costa Rica 1-0, on a goal from Joel Campbell, who’s made himself money playing somewhere after this tournament.

France vs Nigeria

Similar to the Costa Rica/Greece match from yesterday in that it pits a team that’s been very impressive so far in the tournament (France) against one that has not been very impressive but managed to sneak through a mediocre group (Nigeria).  The big difference, of course, is that France has the pedigree of world class talent that Costa Rica does not possess.  Nigeria should not be counted out easily here.  They have good talent and their ace in the hole may be goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who is not only very good but also plays in the French Ligue 1, so he is very familiar with the tendencies of his opponents in this match.  Still, I’ve like this France team all along, and I think they keep the momentum going here, with a 2-1 win.

Germany vs. Algeria

It’s shaping up to be the end of the tournament for Africa today, as the two remaining sides go up against big European powers.  This should be a good measuring stick game for the Germans.  Algeria has shown themselves to be a solid but nothing-special team.  Look for them to “park the bus” and pack in their defense here, much as they did in the early going against Belgium.  It may frustrate the Germans for a while, but they should have the quality to penetrate the blockade and win this 2-0.  Algerians Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani have shown themselves to be dangerouns though.

Argentina vs. Switzerland

Sergio Aguero is out with an injury, but if there’s any team that can pretty easily withstand the loss of a world-class striker, it’s Argentina.  Switzerland has looked good in attack, with Xherdan Shaqiri pulling the strings, and both fullbacks, Rodriguez and Lichtsteiner, making solid contributions to the offense.  But that five-goal meltdown vs. the French may be telling.  Do they have the defense and goalkeeping to keep this Argentina squad down?  I’ll say no, and say that the Argies take this one, 2-1.

USA vs. Belgium

Ah, the two teams I’m rooting for most meet up here in the Round of 16.  Unfortunate.  Assuming Argentina wins in the earlier game today, the favorites will be 7-0 in this round.  Yes, that means I’m going with the Americans as the lone upset.  As I’ve said already, I think the Belgians have been overly criticized so far for the performance in this tournament.  Yes, they’ve faced three less-than-great opponents, but all of those opponents were hanging back and making it very hard for Belgium to find any space.  The US should mirror that tactic, because if they play an open, attacking style, attempting to control the ball equally, the class of the Belgians will shine.  The US needs to hang back and hope to hit on some counter-attacks.  But they’ve been able to take good advantage of their opportunities, and Jozy Altidore may be around to help out today.  I’ll say the US wins this 1-0.

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2014 World Cup: Knockout Stage – Top Half (6/28)

Well, we have gotten through the group stage and the field is cut in half.  We have gotten rid of most of the rifraf, and we are ready for some futbol.  The stakes are raised exponentially, as it has become a one-and-done tournament.  Throw out a clunker, and you will have 4 years to think about it.  Let’s go!

This post will be updated through the Quarterfinals for the top half of the bracket.

6/28, noon – Brazil vs. Chile – Round of 16
Well, the Chileans got through a really tough Group B and what is their reward?  Not only do they draw their arch-nemeses and the side that has eliminated them multiple times in World Cup play, including 2010 in the Round of 16, but now they have to play them on their home soil, where they just about never lose.  A tall task for any nation, particularly one that is not a traditional soccer superpower.  However, if there ever was a Chilean team that could do it, it would be this one.  They have probably looked the better side in this Cup (I think that if the two sides switches groups, Chile would have won Group A and Brazil would have finished 2nd in Group B – at least how they each have played).  Their attacking style can throw off a Brazilian backline that is actually pretty shaky other than Thiago Silva.  And, the Brazilian midfield seems to lack the typical Brazilian magic.  They do have the red-hot goalscorer, Neymar, and a ridiculous homefield advantage (something that Chile has enjoyed all tournament, but will not in this one).  I will be rooting for Chile and think that they have a legit shot here, but it would be disingenuous to think that Brazil wouldn’t clearly be favored to win this one.  Either way, it should be a GREAT start to the knockout round.

6/28, 4:00 – Colombia vs. Uruguay – Round of 16
And, the South American Invitational continues on Saturday, as all four sides playing on the first day of the knockout round are from the host continent.  These four outstanding soccer nations will battle for one spot in the semis.  The nightcap pits a red-hot Colombia side that looks like a legit sleeper to make noise here in the knockout stage against a Uruguay side that will be without their enigmatic biter, Luis Suarez.  While Uruguay may have the more accomplished history and another top ten team currently, the Colombians would probably be the favorites here even if Suarez were playing.  And, without him, the Uruguayans are decided underdogs here.  That being said, they still have a lot of quality and are capable of beating anyone (as evidenced by their successive must-win victories over England and Italy in the group stage).  I like Colombia here, but should be another great match on a fantastic day to get us going in the all-important knockout stage.

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